● Lady Percy moves me - might she move you? CLICK TO FIND OUT
● Plus my novels, stories, verse, vulgar interests, apologies, and singing.
● Most posts are 300 words. I respond to all comments/re-comments.
● See Tone Deaf in New blogger.

Thursday 31 December 2015

Am I really a grown-up?

You remember my casual: "I am toying with taking singing lessons." They're now on!

Next Monday in Little Dewchurch (Hereford has many such villages; quite near is Weston Beggard) I shall open my mouth before a stranger and... what? When I was eight imagining myself singing in public constituted a recurrent nightmare. But I'm a grown-up now. I'm not going to lose sphincter control, am I? Be sent home in the company of an older child?

The moment will tell.

One aim is to be able to sing Schubert's lovely song: An Die Musik (Here's to music). CLICK Janet Baker.

Chosen because of its narrowish dynamic range. But I must also get the stresses right. Here's the first line:

Du holde Kunst in wieviel grauen Stunden
(You gracious art, during so many grey hours...)

I don't read music. Here's how I've notated:

Du holde Kooonst # IN # wee>ee # feelgrauen Stunden.

The moment will tell.

Hardline Hope, a novel (9494 words)
Residents who wanted could chain their bikes to steel hoops cemented into concrete at the entrance to the tower block. Few did. The chains had been strong enough but the bikes had been removed bit by bit, leaving two rusty wheels and a mangled frame which had, over the years, virtually transformed themselves into conceptual art. Getting a bike into the lift would have required artful juggling but the problem didn’t arise since the lift had been inoperative for two months.

Lindsay’s bike was light enough not to have been a problem on the stairs but only without the five-kilo bag of potatoes strapped to the carrier. Five kilos because that was what her mother demanded; saving 5 p on a combination of smaller bags.

Monday 28 December 2015

Weihnachtsmarkt 3. Technoid

In Cologne we stayed in a penthouse - the top floor all to ourselves, reached by a multi-mirrored lift. The ultimate in style, luxury and a soupcon of techno-frustration.

A wall-mounted digital clock hinted at what was to come; showing time, date, temperature and humidity. A whirring noise in our bedroom, eightish in the morning, indicated dawn had arrived and that the blind was automatically rising a foot to prepare us for daylight.

Nothing so old-fashioned as a tap for the bath - more a stepped cascade mid-way along. Initiated by foot-operated levers and prevented from overflowing by photo-electric sensors. Jacuzzi water agitators of course and, when all had flowed away, a few minutes of sighing and hissing that was never explained - perhaps some kind of drying and/or cleaning function.

Even the curtain rail for the shower curtain was sexily circular: shrouding the user in a tube of white.

Occasional Speeder was entranced by the Krups coffee maker; feed it with a sealed pod of fresh grounds and it delivers deliciously rich expresso in less than a minute, start to finish. Both she and I have subsequently bought this device in the UK.

We ate out but had we self-catered we'd have had access to a range of expensive kitchen knives capable of dealing with anything from a roast quail to a half-carcase of beef and handily attached to the wall by a magnet.

The handbowl tap had no turners and worked by hand proximity plus a puzzling button; the plug was not amenable to reason.
Outside the apartment the Russians were handing out literature intended to discourage the Germans from having anything to with Brits. This too was not amenable to reason.

NOTE. I am toying with taking singing lessons. Is this foolish optimism at age eighty? I have yet to approach a teacher and must confess I'm apprehensive at how she (most are women in Herefordshire) might react.

Friday 25 December 2015

Old man goes bonkers

Suddenly I couldn't stand it; last night I bellowed with anger at the TV, contorted by the wilful discrimination.

Beautiful singing in a beautiful building (albeit with acoustics that did nothing for the music) but from a choir which lacked one of the great glories of choral singing. And this despite interspersed religiose readings which harped endlessly about the Son of Man (note that capital letter) and went into almost gynaecological detail about his mother. Recently I've been softening into a passive agnosticism but now my back stiffened; atheism's the only place for men who detest the way other men and smugly masculine institutions still behave as if women had only a biological function in their contracted world.

Not a soprano in sight at the beloved (Ah, the irony!)  King's College carols wing-ding. Of course there never has been and I'd forgotten. VR likes the singing and the tradition otherwise I'd have put on the German Requiem. Later, lobster with Pol Roger champagne shared between us.


Sonnet: On good logistics

We went in strong and used our rightful power
To scorch their kind from flesh to skeletons,
While they – Good grief! – replied within an hour
And left us victims of a thousand suns.

Mountains we’ll need, an ocean and a plain,
Work on an unimaginable scale.
That planet, there, hints at a greenish stain,
We’ll re-locate; let hopefulness prevail!

But which comes first: rock faces or the sea?
And where are ways to generate new force?
Do rivers carve their own geography,
Or are their mossy banks pre-packed at source?

We’ll need some special expertise, I see
It’s rather more than mere accountancy.

Re-done following Marly's gentle guidance.

Thursday 24 December 2015

A word about giving

"And the greatest of these is charity."

Yet regular donations to charity can be distinctly unsatisfying, reminding us only of the myriad other charities we not supporting.
VR donates to several serious and obvious charities but also to one that seems less serious. Book Aid sends second-hand books to bookless areas in Africa. Very commendable. But here's the bit that caught VR's eye and heart: these books are non-instructional and non-improving, they must be entertaining, fictional obviously, light-hearted.

Yes, yes, a child dead from malnutrition cannot be reached by an adult reading aloud from Where The Wild Things Are. But switching from Book Aid to UNICEF leaves others dead from malaria. One would need the judgment of Solomon and the pockets of Croesus to get it entirely right. Books are a form  of light and that too is in short supply.

Me? I donate, otherwise I pursue my own selfish aims. Viz:
Hardline Hope, a novel (8100 words)
... the (wealthy) farmer, besotted by her remote aristocracy, soldiered on, using Remy Martin to ease him through the bad bits. It was only when cuckoldry became continuous and he started driving his giant John Deere with a hip-flask close to hand that resolution loomed. One grim day, typical of the Fens, the tractor lurched over a dyke, shed its driver and then - vindictively it seemed – ran over him as it plunged into Wabberthwaite Drain... Surrounded by acre after acre of the vegetable fields he owned, Greta’s husband, himself reduced to the status of one of his sprout plants, lay in the county hospital sustained by tubing and pumps while his extended family used the courts to (a) have the pumps turned off, and (b) disinherit his widow on the grounds that she rather than the tractor had precipitated his downfall.

Tuesday 22 December 2015

Weihnachtsmarkt 2. Nosh

It's either the Ch. Musar 2003 or 2008 at Beirut
restaurant in Cologne. A noisy, happy evening
A spiritual journey to Cologne? Nah, we were there for fressen, se gaver de or, in English, making pigs of ourselves. Things started off badly en route, in the delightful Belgian town of Leuwen where I cocked up VR's tournedos and my rib-eye steak by carelessly ordering them à point (ie, drained of all life). Oh the shame!

But Beirut, a Lebanese restaurant in Cologne, made up for my booboo. It was packed and we were seated temporarily with the wine list which reminded me why we’d reserved Beirut in the first place. Lebanon is home to Chateau Musar, a great vineyard, and source of a huge dilemma for me: the 2003 (€69) or the 2008 (€55)? My deliberations brought forth the proprietor who chose our meal by ordering a plate of everything on the menu and signalled his approval when I - slightly against my instincts - picked the older wine. The 2003 was magnificent though just about to dive off the edge of a cliff; ordering the 2008 afterwards solved the dilemma and confirmed my instincts.

Am I a lush? An eighty-year-old lush?

We ate meat, tons of it, at Brauhaus Sunner in Walfisch the following evening, where, as mentioned, the star turn was the feisty shouty waitress (left) - super competent, did a good Marlene imitation. Beer, what else?

At La Paix, in Lille (in France) on the way back I ordered blanquette de veau honouring France's greatest culinary tradition - home cooking in a restaurant. An elegantly re-created brasserie which worked.

Just forgot. Starting out we stayed at the Burlington in VR's home town Folkestone in Kent. Ate at the hotel's Bay Tree Grill, where VR's Dad was chef immediately post-WW2. Sentimentalists the lot of us.
VR and Occasional Speeder: Gluhwein mit Rhum

Sunday 20 December 2015

Weihnachtsmarkt 1. People

People not "things".

In France I revel in the linguistic complexity, the need to be specific, the way they provide directions; I respect the French, admire them, am encouraged to compete with them.

But in Germany (we were there for Cologne's Christmas market) I drive away full of affection.

As with the elderly woman in the little tourist train giggling and nodding as she overhears me speculate with VR and Occasional Speeder on a shop called Treff ("It's gotta be from treffen, the verb to meet...").

As with the student at the Chocolate Museum café, seeing me struggle to get out my camera as a Rhine barge goes by, says: "There'll be another soon" and there is. Who grins, but self-deprecatingly, when I ask who'll win the next World Cup: "Germany, but hey..."

PS: We buy our coffee there because of the view; the museum remains a mystery.

As with the fifty-year-old waitress at the Brauhaus Sunner in Wallfisch who squeezes my shoulder and asks "What else can I bring you darleengk?"

As with the guy at the market stall serving us with three potato pancakes (the minimum unit). Told only one of us wants the blob of savoury sauce, has to physically restrain his hand from adding blobs to the other two (It's traditional! you see.) but manages it, after a fearful struggle, because the customer is always right.

As with the fat guy (a rarity in Germany these days) inexpertly playing a game of curling. When I point to a stone chundering on to the wooden walkway and ask riskily: "Zu viele Bier?" (Too much beer?) he laughs uproariously.

Yes the Dom (cathedral) is magnificent, the Rhine enveloping, the market decorations welcoming - but none is human, none talks, none jokes. It’s contact I’m after.

Sunday 13 December 2015

A bit/lot of cheer

HAPPY TIMES! Champagne (that's real champagne - not the sparklers known as cava, prosecco, cremant, sekt, etc.) is cheaper than at any other time in my life.

Why was it so expensive? Not to complicate things: labour-intensive and time-consuming manufacturing procedures.

Was real champagne worth it? Up to you, but the French think so. When, decades ago, some Spanish vineyards sold "Spanish Champagne" the French sued, causing them to desist. Now, if it says "champagne" on the bottle it's been made in eastern France, near the city of Reims, by the traditional method (méthode champenoise).

Let's talk prices. Until fairly recently the lowest going price was about £25 (US: approx $40) a bottle. The big names (Mumm, Pol Roger, Heidsieck, etc) still charge this but may be disposed to deal a bit. What's changed significantly, in the UK at least, is the emergence of smaller, but legitimate, brands going at £10 a pop. (Thanks to Aldi, the German supermarket chain, who led the charge - see pic.)

Is it OK? Who'd ever believe me? But now you can afford to make up your own mind.

Hardline Hope, a novel (6665 words)

(Gayle said) But before that something personal. Your glasses.”

Lindsay sighed. “My glasses. Ah yes.”

“I take it you’ve been asked before.”

“More than once.”

Gayle looked serious. “Do you mind? Do you know what I’m going to say?”

“More or less. I assume you’re as blind as a bat. I assume you wear contacts and hate ‘em. And for two reasons. First because you always know they’re there. Second because you’re ashamed of being a wuss about wearing contacts.”

“I’ll give yew this, Lindsay. You talk straight.”

Note. TD will now be unproductive for a week or so.

Thursday 10 December 2015

Rheumy eyes an advantage?

In politics, "knocking" isn't enough; you must persuade. FDR knew this, so did Churchill and de Gaulle, even Hitler and Mao did initially. Stalin alone didn't need to.

In WS's Julius Caesar, Brutus and others kill Caesar "for love of Rome". At the funeral Brutus explains Caesar was ambitious.

Mark Anthony, Caesar's friend, speaks under severe restraint. In a speech most of us find almost too familiar traditional Antonys (eg, Brando in the movie) seize the oft-repeated line that the killers are "all honourable men" and speak the adjective sneeringly. It isn't enough.

The speech is only 28 lines and in my revelatory Caesar from the BBC's complete boxed set, actor (Keith Michel; never better) and director, Herbert Wise, break it into innumerable - but logical - fragments, with Michel plausibly pausing, speaking “honourable” normally, moving within the crowd. The scene lasts ten well-spent minutes; we watch the crowd, pro-Brutus at first, changing with time - being persuaded.

I've seen several Caesars and last night recognised this difference for the first time. Two points: no one with literary pretensions should lack this boxed set. Second, old age brings rheumy eyes but they may work better than clearer youthful eyes.

Hardline Hope, a novel (6310 words)
Lindsay followed her own instructions (about getting into the car).... The movements were continuous, slightly erotic and self-evidently efficient.

“See that, Jenson,” said Gayle. “Now you could say I’m at the tipping point. I could very well place an order. No promises but it’s in the balance. You’re a smart larrikin, Jenson. What’s your next step?”

Jenson’s smile was rueful. “Steal away. Like the Arabs with their tents.”

“Good on yuh, J. Hope I haven’t been too hard.”

He even managed to walk to the showroom with some dignity.

Tuesday 8 December 2015

From dullness to something else

Other than haslet (a sausagey blob from the sweepings of a butcher’s floor) the dullest sandwich filling is bog-standard, supermarket Cheddar cheese. Piquancy expectations are low; take a bite and you’re into negative values. Yes you can add onion but then it’s a cheese-and-onion sandwich; same with pickled cabbage. With that thinking why not go the whole hog and say the tastiest cheese sandwich is a pork pie?

Assuming you’re claiming to eat a cheese sandwich (a modest claim) the answer lies in a small dab of this or that, so that the structure (two slices of bread and filler) is visibly unchanged. Take this as your starting-point rule. And VR reveals a new twist; to ensure cheese sandwich authenticity, integrate the dab with the butter smeared on the bread. Brilliant!

Yesterday was diet day so no tests. What am I thinking? Crushed chilli paste mixed with the butter! So little paste! The sandwich’s physical integrity remains intact.

Bear in mind: we’re aiming for a flavoured cheese sandwich, not a layered monstrosity which betrays the concept.

Hardline Hope, a novel (5847 words)
Jenson, edging towards them, had now arrived. “Can I help you ladies?” he asked, the expression on his face hopelessly wrong.

Gayle surveyed him eye to eye. “Rickon a Shimatsu (supercar) suits... ladies?”

“Sure. We sold one to a Man City defender’s wife.”

“Who’s famous for being married to a soccer player?”

Jenson simpered which surprised Lindsay. Whatever his oafishness he was supposed to be ace at selling. Jenson said, “Well, yes.”

“Yuh’see Jenson, I’m sort of famous myself. And not for being married to anyone. Seems you’re selling hairy chests here, and not changing the story for those of us who wear bras; or sometimes nothing at all in that department. Get my meaning?”

Sunday 6 December 2015

Kindle treachery

Do we fail more than we succeed? A question only someone who regularly writes fiction would put; failure is more interesting than success, it's got built-in drama.

Anyway the answer is yes. For every success we fail a thousand-fold. Luckily no one knows, these failures are internal. The most prolific source is self-delusion.

A plane flies over; idly we pretend we could become a pilot; we couldn't. Pass a jeweller and imagine running off with the diamonds; we never will. See a tree, type unknown, vow we'll buy a tree book and learn; we never do. Dozens of times a day we fail with nothing proclaimed.

But a Kindle reveals our self-delusion. Mine is several years old. The minute I bought it I trawled the Internet for freebies. But not for JK Rowling or John le Carré (even if they'd been free); I sought free downloads that would prove my intellect: Goethe's autobiography, Canterbury Tales, the Alexander Pushkin collection, The Communist Manifesto, the complete Milton, and more.

They'll be there, easily accessible, I told myself. I'll be able to read them any time. Guess what...

Proof that I'm not an intellectual, then? Better not read, writing's a more sophisticated disguise.

Hardline Hope, a novel (4523 words)
Lindsay smiled. “This is a supercar, Gayle. I could bore you with nought-to-sixty times but a supercar is – and here’s another crummy word – a statement. You run your own business. What’s your line?”

“I’m plugging a hole you Brits desperately need plugging. Computer programs for really big systems, the sort this country always seems to screw up.”

“NHS? The Inland Revenue?”

Gayle said, “Uh-huh. Those and others. Systems where bigness shifts the goalposts; even changes the game itself...

Friday 4 December 2015


The Annunciation is the visitation whereby Mary learns she is to be Christ's mother. This handsome volume, produced as a labour of love by Beth Adams, contains the reactions of "sixteen contemporary poets" to this seminal event.

Although she has many more achievements, Beth is probably best known to readers of Tone Deaf through her blog, The Cassandra Pages. Click HERE for details of the book's availability.

Two contributors will also be familiar. Marly Youmans, published poet and novelist, and a regular commenter on Lucy's blog, has three poems, notably The Annunciation Appears in a Painting by Andrew Wyeth. It starts thus:

Shadows from the angel's wing suffuse
The brittle grass with gold where Wyeth sinks
Into a patch of snow...

While Natalie d'Arbeloff, blogger, artist, polyglot, and Tone Deaf commenter, has translated the Brazilian poet, Vinicius de Moraes, ending:

When I awoke
I smelled of jasmine
An angel was scattering petals
Over me...

The levels elsewhere are equally high but I urge you to find out for yourselves. All contributors bar one are women and it's an unbelievable honour to be the lone male. My verse appeared in Tone Deaf. Click HERE

Hardline Hope, a novel (3704 words).

Lindsay wasn’t even sure Jenson’s prettiness would be worth the effort. Eating out with him, opposite, over a table, would theoretically be a pleasure; a relaxed inspection of his eyelashes. But not really. She’d be sharing his eyelashes with Jenson himself. For Jenson knew he was strong on eyelashes.

Bed? There’d be a mirror, surely.

Fancies me? “Not as much as he fancies himself,” she said to Bronwyn.

Tuesday 1 December 2015

Yet again I need help

I wish I could dance. I've taken lessons but my instincts just couldn't get the hang of it. Beyond that there was the terror (I feel it now, surging up from the soles of my feet) of approaching an unknown woman and begging for the favour of holding her close to me.

Perhaps I read literal meaning into Ol' Frank singing:

And while the rhythm swings
What lovely things I'll be sayin'
Cause what is dancing but
Making love set to music, playin'

So I have characters in my novels do my dancing for me, like buying a ventriloquist’s doll for its conversation. Bringing further problems – where do people dance these days? Other than at weddings or (for all I know) funerals. Correct me if I’m wrong but didn’t couples in movies go to bars where, as a change from getting bladdered, they stood up, took to a smallish dance floor and linked bodies? Do such places still exist? And if so what does the woman do with her handbag?

More than that I need to know what dancing’s like from a woman’s point of view. Forget George Clooney. What’s it like to face a man who could easily (horrifyingly) be an accountant asking to do something that would get him jailed if he did it in Tesco. A British supermarket.

Isn’t there a shocking sense of intrusion? An immediate source of embarrassment or worse? Suppose the guy was the Yorkshire Ripper’s brother? Or someone intending to stand for Parliament in the Conservative interest? Are women simply fearless in these circumstances? Shrugging it off like childbirth or bringing in the washing when it rains?

Please tell. I’ll be eternally grateful.

Friday 27 November 2015

Gradus ad Parnassum

Novels take a minimum of two years. Aged eighty I worried. But what the hell; some unfinished novels have turned out famous

Roderick Robinson


MR KOSSOF was almost finished; just a signature on the final page. Lindsay leant over the counter pointing to the line, discreetly managing her cleavage gap as she did so. One didn’t distract a customer signing over sixty kay for a new three-litre convertible. But then perhaps Kossof had earned a sly peep; deserved it? Suppose he offered her a ride?

He glanced at her name badge. “Well Leenzy, chwill the ladies be eempressed?”

“Of course.”

“Beeg car, huh?”

“Luxury car."

“Luxury? I dunna understan.”

“Like Buckingham Palace.”

He smiled, showing gold teeth beneath a ragged moustache. “Good for Her Majesty. You eempressed, Leenzy?"

But Lindsay never did get a chance to answer this promising question. Jenson, passing behind her to the photocopier, found pin-striped grey polyester, wool and Teflon stretched over her bowl-shaped rump just too enticing. Made no attempt to pretend it was an accidental brush-past, went for a fondle with added linger. Hearing her gasp, Mr Kossof looked up and did not approve, perhaps seeing tanks on a lawn he imagined he already commanded. He pushed the signed contract across the counter and turned towards a TV showing an over-hysterical video loop on car insurance for the over-fifties.

Furious, but keeping it under control, Lindsay went to the loo and dissipated her aggression in high-pressure pee. Thought about laddishness. Jenson was good-looking and devoted more of his salary to his appearance than any woman she knew. Used mousse on his hair while it was still controversial; patronised a Pierre Cardin boutique for males who were small but perfectly formed. Lindsay could imagine French-kissing him and simultaneously kneeing him in his – no doubt, perfectly formed – groin. How was it possible for her to contain these two emotional extremes?

Tuesday 24 November 2015

Le style, c'est l'homme

This is RR in Smart Casual mode ready for wine and canapés. I decided clothes alone wouldn't do the job, hence the trumpet. OK it'll be awkward, especially if I'm required to shake hands but the heck with it; I just won't shake hands.

From time to time I intend to open up the jacket and reveal the lining. I figure this will absolve me from conversation.

Sunday 22 November 2015

Nothing (partly rewritten)

Bloggers who are in it for the long haul must learn how to write a post about nothing. The need crops up regularly: I've been silent too long, you say to yourself, readers will imagine I've cut my throat. They'll reckon they've seen the signs.

Writing about nothing means just that. No fancy verbs, no words with capital letters, no grand abstractions, no nouns outside the basic 700-word vocabulary. Damn! See that! The v-noun breaks the rule. And I'm not too sure about the r-word.

OK, I'm ready to go.

I am. Yes, that's OK. My am-ness was yesterday but is not yet tomorrow. I know my am-ness because it is not your am-ness. For me there is nothing more than my am-ness; more would be other-ness and other-ness could be you. I am and you are are the am-nesses of each of us. Neither is the other. I see you and say: he is. He is because he has his is-ness; I have my is-ness.

You get the idea. Suddenly, you say, who's the smartyboots? Obviously the guy who decided, more than a thousand posts ago, in 2008, that he would limit his posts to 300 words. And that's me, blowing my own trumpet.

It makes sense. A 300-word post about nothing is kinder to readers than one of 1000 words.

And there's more. A post about nothing can be improved. An earlier version of this post actually said something; parts of it were almost literature. Clearly that was cheating - the thought came to me (as bad thoughts always do) at 3 am today. Quickly I re-wrote the final third. I'm sure if you read the first version you'll agree this one is much more nothing-y.

Final question. Can a post about nothing be anything other than dull? But it's the wrong question: the aim is to do one's duty, to fill space.

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair

Friday 20 November 2015

The unsell

Tone Deaf has just passed 100,000 pageviews. Please don't depress me by saying you've racked up thousands more; I‘ll say you got there by courting populism.

Years ago Lucy did depress me (but for my own good, you understand) by telling me I should ignore my pageviews. That they are primarily a measure of intrusive systems seeking to discover the blogging equivalent of my toilet habits. Crow said figures get inflated if I accidentally mention the title of a set-book in the current year's eng. lit. exams.

I'm sure they're both right. All I can say is that the highest numbers of pageviews-per-post seem related to the highest comments-per-post. And comments are at least verifiable.

Natalie urges me to stir my stumps and promote my fiction more energetically. I do so want to be read - who doesn't? - but I approach promotion in diver's boots. It's not that I can't sell; I've personally sold magazine subscriptions to teachers in Indiana, charming ten bucks out of ‘em with my accent, however unlikely that sounds. Selling my fiction should be like selling myself, as when speaking to someone for the first time.

But it isn't. What can I say? Here's a book I enjoyed writing - I've no idea whether you'll enjoy reading it. Or: read this book, no charge, because you'll make me happy. Or: take this book, no charge, just pretend you'll read it. Or: this is my book, that’s my fist; it’s one or the other.

There’s status in writing a novel; not much, but it’s a task most people don’t do. Like going over Niagara in a barrel.  Promotion is the price an author pays for that status. That and the agony.  Some would say it’s a bum deal.

Wednesday 18 November 2015


Matches the half-acre-plus garden
A coffee morning in Hereford (separate from the wine and canapé "do" I have also been invited to) revealed the middle-classes in full force. But how would a foreigner recognise the cast marks?

All are elderly to old to moribund. The men wear long-sleeve pullovers (very much yesterday's garment) with light-plaid shirts open at the neck. The shirts are not casual since the collars are comparatively stiff; in an emergency - say, if the Queen showed up - a tie could be accommodated. Trousers are often corduroy, indicating that the wearer lives in a detached house in the country with at least half an acre of garden.

The trend away from laced shoes is almost complete. The elderly/old/moribund are usually overweight and slip-on footwear reduces the need to bend. Addressed by an official speaker they clap in a way that precludes applause; confirmation that, despite faulty hearing, they have heard what has been said, nothing more.

With the women the news is both good and bad. Hair-dying (even henna) is eschewed and grey is worn proudly and honestly. But, in the presence of cake (an excellent carrot cake was on offer) their eyes gleam and they are seconds away from having to wipe their lips with a table napkin (never a serviette). Cake becomes virtually sacerdotal in old age.

Only a small proportion (both genders) wears spectacles - proof that cataracts have been attended to, probably privately. Once the middle-classes brayed when speaking; nowadays their conversation is more akin to the soughing of oak branches in a high wind.

Mortgages are all paid off, thus faces are not pinched with financial worries. Children are in their fifties and are either comfortably off or (Whoops! Stigma machine blew a gasket here.). Almost no one reads The Guardian.

Tuesday 17 November 2015

Wanna kick me? Aim here

For an insult to stick there has to be a grain of truth. Thus when a guy working on the same Philadelphian magazine told me I was in the wrong job because I didn't "speak American" I was shocked. But only briefly. For one thing no other indigène, during six years in the US, ever insulted me on the basis of my roots (or anything else; suburban Americans are the politest people); for another, I had evidence to the contrary, notably an increasing pay packet.

He'd have done better to touch on my body bulk, my parsimony, my frequent insensitivity, my cavalier attitude towards religious belief or my desire to crush other baseball fans with my superior knowledge of statistics.

But suppose someone - anywhere in the world - insisted I lacked a sense of humour (LSOH). Even if I felt pretty sure the accusation was unfounded I'm sure I'd wriggle. This is much more than being told I don't laugh a lot.

Why is it such an awful contemplation? For me the Number One reason is the possibility that someone - idiot though he might be - thinks I take everything literally, that I am incapable of appreciating inference, subtlety, irony, word-play. That I'd be better off simply counting things. That I am by my own terms stunted, incomplete, wasting my time watching foreign movies and, certainly, trying to put one coherent word against another.

Yep, this is called making oneself a hostage to fortune. Should I temporarily wreck your life with an injudicious post or comment, you now know where my viscera lies. Not that I'm saying you should hold back. I think I need some practice in rebuttal; finding oneself vulnerable, or in fact wounded, one looks instinctively for Elastoplast (US: Band Aid).

Sunday 15 November 2015

Wood for trees

Work-in-progress research (before - above; after - below)
for An Oral Problem

An Oral Problem
Short story 1532 words

Hagar was leaving the Centre by the side door when a dim figure stepped forward out of the dark. Feebly he raised his shoulder bag to defend himself; it was either that or the Financial Times, not even rolled up.

“Sorry, I’ve startled you,” said a reasonable voice. “The last thing I wanted. May I come in?”

“I’ve just set the alarm.” Hagar’s piping tone became more confident. “If I don’t close this door behind me all hell’s going to break loose.”

“Sweet Jesus, what a start! Here, let me step back while you close the door. I swear I’m just a non-harming person in need of dental help.”

“The surgery’s closed.”

“I realise that. But I have an emergency proposition.”

It was the reasonable voice that did it. Eventually he was able to re-open the side door and they sat in the patients’ waiting room lit inadequately by one bank of lights; Hagar had allowed him five minutes.

“I’ve broken a tooth,” he said, spreading his hands.

“Hardly an emergency, for God’s sake. Let me see. A lateral incisor, not even a real front tooth.”

“I’m short of time.”

Hagar shrugged. “It needs capping which means the lab’s involved. It’s a two-day job.”

He nodded. “Suppose I... made it worth your while?”

“I’m not exactly on my uppers, old sport.”

“How about a thousand? In cash.”

Hagar sat up straight. “A thousand! What’s your problem, then?”

The man waved his hand vaguely. “A woman, what else?”

“Sheesh. I hope she’s worth it. But it will still take two days.”

“Hmmm. That would be tight. Very tight.”

They sat in silence and Hagar thought about a thousand – tax-free – and what it could do for him. More particularly for Lottie, his problem woman. He spoke speculatively, “There is a temporary way round this. I could prepare that tooth for the crown, do the moulds, get them to the lab. For the forty-eight hours in between I could build up the tooth with composite; it would look OK but you’d need to be careful: stay away from apples, nuts, crunchy stuff. Would that help?”

“Would it look like a real tooth?”


Over an hour’s work but it passed pretty quickly. He said his name was Jiggs which Hagar disbelieved, but then who cared? Whenever Jiggs’ mouth wasn’t full of dental equipment he liked to ask questions about what was happening. Wanted to see the mandrel, commented on how quickly the mould paste set, asked about the diameter of the reinforcing pins (Which Hagar didn’t know.) Said that rinsing out his mouth didn’t really get rid of rogue fragments of dried-up paste. Noted that the plastic cover protecting the bulb in the overhead light was scratched. Seemed genuinely disappointed when all was done.

Hagar took half-payment and agreed to be available early evening on Thursday to finish the job. Re-set the alarm, re-locked the side door and felt the reassuringly firm wodge of five-hundred pounds in twenties in his pocket.

The house was dark when he parked in the driveway. Lottie had warned him, said she’d be late. He did scrambled eggs, burning the first four slices of toast. Watched hyenas tear the tripes out of a wildebeest on telly but fell asleep in the chair before a repeat performance involving orcas and a fur seal. Fell asleep equally quickly in bed, unaware of her joining him at three in the morning.

The police called at the Centre in the morning and he saw Detective-Sergeant Swede in the cramped little office set aside for admin matters. Swede wore a remarkably well-cut grey suit and what looked like a regimental tie; for once Hagar felt slightly vulnerable in his polyester surgical blues.

“Aren’t you cold wearing those flimsy things?” Swede asked.

“Dentistry is hard work,” said Hagar. “We keep warm.”

Very quickly it became clear that Swede knew a lot about Hagar’s impromptu patient and it became necessary to lie a little. “He told me his name was Jiggs which sounded odd. But I confess I didn’t take any more details; that would have meant activating the computer system and I wanted to concentrate on his tooth. I’ll add in the personal info when he returns on Thursday.” Hagar paused. “I haven’t even paid in the five hundred pounds yet,” he said, as casually as he could manage.

Swede, nodded, half smiling. Tax fraud wasn’t his first priority it seemed. “Let me see if I’ve got this right in lay terms, forgetting the techno-talk about lateral incisors. You’ve made him look presentable, normal if you like. No one would know one of his teeth – those that are easily seen by others – had been broken.”

“A temporary job, of course, but that’s essentially correct.”

“And he was keen – very keen – to have this done?”

“Very. Hence the one kay.”

“Would you say the tooth was broken recently?”

“Very recently. The edges of the break were still quite sharp.”

Swede nodded more decisively this time. “That fits what we suspect. Look, here’s what we have. We don’t know him but the car he used matches some other evidence which I can’t tell you about. We have CCTV footage of him parking in a street about half a mile away and walking in this direction. I’m told that your cameras have him arriving at your side door. But he’s savvy; keeps his face down. And, we think, he wanted the tooth repaired because it’s an easy identifier. What we need from you is a full description of his face. Obviously, you’d be willing to pick him out of a line-up when we get that far.”

A silence developed in the small room. A silence compounded by confusion, embarrassment and guilt. Definitely guilt. Hagar sat, his mouth half open, seemingly incapable of speech.

“What’s wrong, Mr Hagar?” Swede asked finally.

Hagar stammered, “I... I’m... not sure I’ll be able to help you, Detective-Sergeant.”

“Why the hell not, man?”

“I... I didn’t turn on all the lights in the waiting room. Didn’t seem necessary.”

Swede was exasperated. “All right, all right. Never mind about that. But for an hour you had him in your dentist’s chair, sometimes only inches away. You must know what he looks like. Better than he does himself.”

Again Hagar said nothing.

Angry now, “Mr Hagar, this is an effing murder enquiry.”

Hagar spread his hands, tears in his eyes. “To me they’re all just mouths.”

They tried, how they tried. Batteries of policeman badgered him, through the rest of the morning and into the afternoon. A pleasing voice, an interest in technology, those Hagar could confirm. The teeth yes, especially the slightly twisted molar. But as to the face...

Detective-Sergeant Swede returned as it was getting dark. Contempt had replaced anger. In two or three spitting, cutting sentences he contrived to suggest Hagar was an inadequate member of society.

“But he’ll be coming back tomorrow,” said Hagar piteously. “To have the crown fitted.”

“I wouldn’t hold your breath.”

On Thursday they waited, Hagar and half a dozen policemen, none of whom said a word to him. Until midnight when, abruptly, they stood up as a group and departed the Centre in silence, leaving Hagar to set the alarm and lock the side door.

“Just mouths,” he whispered as the last broad back passed into the dark.

At home Hagar had the novel experience of getting into a bed where Lottie already slept. Looking gorgeous and wanton, her long auburn hair spread out over the pillow. But there was no way he was able to fall asleep beside her. After ten minutes he got up, hearing her sigh, irritated, and went downstairs.

He’d undressed downstairs in order not to disturb her. He picked up his trousers and felt the roll of twenties, stiff and substantial, through the fabric. In his mind he’d already spent the money at a boutique newly opened in town. Women’s designer shoes, a ludicrous gesture. Useless too. He’d pay the cash into the practice’s account.

On the coffee table was her handbag, carelessly open. He knew that if he chose to he’d find something in it that would makes things final between them. Needless to say he would do no such thing, preferring to let matters slide for a few weeks more. Perhaps until Christmas when there’d be some artificial form of celebration.

From the start it had always been an unlikely match: he stocky and hairy-chested, she as glamorous as a fifties filmstar: Rita Hayworth say. The true explanation had quickly emerged as, post-honeymoon, he’d doggedly set to and discharged her huge mountain of debt.

He hadn’t been entirely naive, his astonishment when she had accepted him had been very real and she’d seen he needed reassurance. Though nothing that would tax her imagination. “Love at first sight,” she had said airily. “Probably the same with you,” she added even more airily. Foolishly he hadn’t taken it any further.

Very foolish indeed, he suddenly realised, remembering their first meeting. She’d been worried about the discolouration of one of her teeth, a lateral incisor to be exact.

A mouth in fact, a mouth well remembered. And then it seemed they were married.

Saturday 14 November 2015

Step one on two-year road

Possible central character for new (fifth) novel. No plot as yet.

Seen in Brasshouse pub, Birmingham. Pair late twenties, early evening meal.  He faintly resembling Ewan McGregor, lightish beard moustache/chin, leaning low towards her across table, quiet voice.

SHE. Hair imperfectly dyed blonde (irregular dark streaks) swept up from neck with largish bun on top, loose strands of hair, petite face with pink/white makeup, black mascara, prominent convex cheeks, glasses with slot-like lenses and black and white sidebars (wider near lens, tapering to ear), white tight-fitting knitted pullover/blouse buttoned up to scalloped collar detailed in red, thin upper body with prominent, seemingly spherical breasts, hands with coloured nails regularly in motion.

Speaks conversationally yet assertively, even shrilly but – strangely - not unpleasantly. Not in charge but talking/acting with conviction. Ate salad.

GUESSES. Working class/LMC aspirant. Education; probably not uni.

Employment: Not professional. Say: supermarket supervisor, admin at car main dealership, sales with car, managing show house/new estate. Not receptionist, not shop sales assistant.

Assets: Confidence, appealing not tarty, persuasive, energetic, resourceful (needed for plot). Glasses dominate face; ostentatious style deliberate, proving she can look “straight through” them.

Debits: No advanced education, non-reader, mistakenly seen as serious, bossy.

Conflicts: Frustrated by limited employment, tendency to discourage dull football-loving males (Intentionally? Accidentally?), satisfied/dissatisfied with marital status.

Holidays: Not on beach; activity. Leisure: Nothing literary or arty. Friend: An “opposite” who lacks her debits. Living with parents? – probably not, given her age. Outgrown parents? – yes.

Threats: Force drawing her back to her roots; mindless discrimination by male bosses based on lack of conventional prettiness; male belief that glasses make her sexually desperate.

Popular names 1985: Jessica, Ashley, Jennifer, Amanda. Stephanie, Nicole, Amber.


Wednesday 11 November 2015

Comes and goes

Hogarth: The Shrimp Girl

Sonnet – Ecstasy but not quite

“Keep a light hopeful heart.
But expect the worst.”
Joyce Carol Oates

When was the best time? I get asked,
Assuming from my face of lumps and lines,
That joy and confidence have long since passed
And, like a cowpat, left dull dreck behind.

The Sun replies it’s surely yet to come,
Recalling what he’s read on calendars;
Childbirth is often cited as the plum
By those who covet middle-class applause.

Not yet, the realist says, nor is it due,
No best, no better, only similar.
It’s where you’re standing in the righteous queue,
Prate prophets reading from apocrypha.

For me it comes and goes as clarity
When something newish fits exquisitely.

Tuesday 10 November 2015

Typical Saturday night

Key: Sacred Love's clothed, Profane Love's ready for action
On Saturday for the first time we saw Wagner's opera Tannhäuser streamed from the New York Met. It's about sacred and profane love (pictured above).

Tannhäuser dallies with Venus (voluptuous, thus profane love) and, for no good reason, chooses to return home. In a singing competition T boasts about the rumpy-pumpy he's been enjoying, shocking the community and his ex-girlfriend Elizabeth (devout, therefore sacred love) who sort of forgives him. To redeem himself T pilgrims to Rome to be absolved by the Pope. Returning home T meets Wolfram, a mate before he became a metal (aka tungsten), and says he mentioned his penances to the Pope, adding he still has profane yearnings. Politely the Pope tells T to defecate in his hat. Elisabeth sort of dies and by dying absolves T. T then dies and the opera ends with a stunning chorus of:

The grace of God is granted to the penitent;
now he enters into the bliss of heaven.

It's far better than the plot suggests, much of the music is quite, quite beautiful, and there's genuine drama. But what about its premise?

Profane love we know about, teenagers get up to it too early in life. Sacred love, it seems, only happens above the waistline and was the going thing in Tannhäuser’s home town near Wartburg Castle, Germany. Amazingly the town didn't depopulate and die in the Middle Ages, but this may happen shortly, given its most important industry is car-making. That's German car-making.

Still about cars and even more amazing, Wartburg Castle gave its name to a terrible two-stroke car made in what used to be East Germany. Not a car to generate any love – sacred or profane – in me. Stay with Tone Deaf, it’s educational but in a populist way.

Sunday 8 November 2015

Hobbledehoy, pt two

There are three codas to my previous post about DRESS Smart casual.

As I mention in one of my re-comments, VR volunteered to take me to M&S and equip me - at her expense - in a manner that will meet this vague criterion. I noted this would be expensive but she said she didn't care. Since she will see more of me at this canapé/drinks occasion (I’ve accepted the invitation) than I will see of myself I gave in graciously. Only heavy rain yesterday kept us out of M&S.

Second, what I said about my wardrobe wasn't entirely complete. I do have a soft, rather luxurious tweed jacket, acquired fairly recently, that I had in mind as a fall-back in extremis. Good thing I didn't mention it. It turns out this delicious garment has been the most tragic victim of the 5/2 diet. See the photo for proof.

Third, Natalie recommended I visit M&S and spend on my own behalf, justifying it on the basis that canapé/drinks may provide raw material for a Tone Deaf post. This could happen but, more immediately, it set me thinking about a visit I made very recently to the dentist to have a broken tooth repaired. Although we pay a regular monthly premium for dental work, I was warned repeatedly that there would be an extra charge on this occasion, attributable to "lab work".

Goaded by the thought of this extra expenditure, I glanced round the surgery and felt there had to be some literary potential somewhere. I asked a couple of questions and lo! in the mysterious way these things happen, the idea for a short story dropped into my noggin: involving cops, a suspected murder and tax-fraud – all firsts. Now written and awaiting VR’s approval. See you there.

Thursday 5 November 2015

Confessions of a hobbledehoy

The chair of Hereford's Courtyard Theatre would like to see me, and guest, in early December for a Christmas drinks reception. There'll be canapés and wine and the event will take place on the set of Beauty And The Beast, the forthcoming panto.

I'm a patron of the Courtyard, as well I might be. Movies (during the Borderlines Film Festival) and streamed events from worldwide centres of culture (Tannhäuser the day after tomorrow) form a significant element in what passes for my intellectual distraction and I have the Courtyard to thank for both. But there is a snag on the invitation card:

DRESS: Smart casual.

I feel a chill round about my belly-button. Let's take shoes for a start. I have three pairs. Two are black leather casuals, the younger of which was bought thirty years ago. Both pairs are reserved for funerals since the dead cannot be offended. Otherwise my everyday shoes are Velcro-secured suede casuals with tide-marks that speak of frequent immersion. Also the heel of one is starting to detach from the upper. The smell in shoe-shops induces an itching in my nose and I am - obviously - an infrequent visitor.

But it's the shirts that worry me most. Two years ago I was distinctly fat and fat people tend towards loose-fitting garments. Think latterday Orson Wells. Since then, courtesy of the 5/2, I’ve lost over 2 stones. Shirts that were once loose-fitting are now voluminous; the impression I present is that of a nomadic Arab, about to squat on the desert floor and start feeding himself, by hand, from the communal pot of goat ragout.

I have several fleeces but surely they cannot be classed as smart casual.

Should I refuse the drinks and canapés? I rarely socialise these days.

Sunday 1 November 2015

Schlock of ages

 Why no Tiger Rolls?
Short story: 1148 words

The supermarket was low and long, an overblown ranch. In Mexico a hacienda, perhaps, home to a Hollywood stereotype, pudgy, bald but with pendulous sideburns, clad in an embroidered satin waistcoat, nicknamed El Gordo, given to pointless murder and, when finally gunned down, dying with a lurid passage from the Mass on his lips.

If you want stereotypes they’re on sale here, he thought: the chops juicy, the spinach fresh, the wine supple and the customers variegated. I am an old man of course and may eventually fall down dead on this worn linoleum. But nobody should expect

Gratias agimus tibi
propter magnam gloriam tuam

since God’s glory is not to be found in Dairy Products or Wine and Spirits. Glory is manifest in an ability to buy all we need in one self-shriving act and then, absolved, return home and re-commit the same sin of running out of supplies. Here we are forgiven, supplicants at the Church of Supply And Demand.

His wife, presently having her perm re-permed, had written out a shopping list, items gathered into groups which would track his geographical progress from Newspapers/Magazines to impulse Tic-Tac at the check-out. Easy-peasy when it came to fruit and vegetables set out in the grubby area immediately ahead, or his lunchtime pain au raisin on healthful wooden shelves just beyond. But even she, his wife, mistress of all recondite skills in retailing, could not say with certainty where crushed chili paste might be found or whether table napkins were cloistered with paper towels or somewhere else completely unexpected. But then she had no need; she would ask an employee. He, a man, believed asking for advice showed lack of moral fibre and was prepared to waste angry minutes shuffling down aisles.

Due to inexplicable marketing ebb and flow, there were no satsumas and he had to make do with unspecific Easy Peelers, citrus yes, but members of what genre? More particularly: with or without pips? Once he had sighed noisily at this and a shelf-stacker wearing a green fleece labelled Fruit & Veg had turned to him

“Looking for sats?” F&V asked.

“Why do they just disappear?”

“Never understood that myself. I like ‘em best.” Then, as if it explained everything, added, “They always have ‘em for Christmas.”

To occupy the toe of the Christmas stocking, he supposed. F&V had been much younger and he had enjoyed this brief moment of male communion.

The Tiger Rolls slot on the wooden shelving was empty. He’d only discovered Tiger Rolls a month or two ago; liked their cheesy flavour and their chewiness which didn’t, however, threaten his loosely mounted canines. Behind the shelving men moved back and forward in the bakery with detached professionalism. All wore white trilbies, adding to their formality. There was no way he would interrupt their liturgical procedures.

Glancing again at his list he was irritated to find he’d jumped the sequence, should have started in the pharmacy. He paused before a sort of horizontal library of toothpaste cartons, trying to control a sudden outburst of horror. He’d often sworn to himself he wouldn’t do this, wouldn’t compare present-day prices with those of his youth, it was a sign of feeble old age. All the same, a fiver for toothpaste...! He’d worked for four years before his pay packet topped that. His grandfather, who’d relished such comparisons, had said toothpaste was a luxury; soot did the job. He shuddered at the memory.

He passed by Meat, careful not to notice even more extreme prices. They needed a small joint for the weekend but this fell outside his remit. His wife trusted him only so far; certainly not enough to allow him free rein for this most specialised form of purchasing. She would pop in, direct from the salon.

Tinned, processed marrowfat peas weren’t anywhere close to the shelves of baked beans – a long shot he’d guessed at, based on similarities of shape. And being tinned. Hurrying round the aisle end he bumped (gently) into Vera whom he had not noticed and would, desperately, have tried to avoid. Vera was said to be of great age (though probably no older than him), willowy, with hair so brilliantly white it looked artificial.  Nothing wrong with Vera who was demonstrably pretty and talked pleasantly. The trouble was she had also started to talk vaguely and he, superstitiously, now looked on Alzheimers as infectious.

It took her over an hour to do her shopping, she said; she regularly forgot which aisles she’d visited. “So I put another packet of Rich Teas into my trolley and find there’s one already nestling. I feel such a fool.”

Just the sort of information he didn’t need; behaviour that carried proof of mental decay.

“Rich Teas? Do they still sell them?” he asked, and that was another vow he’d broken; assuming things he’d eaten as a child would no longer be available. That they’d be too old-fashioned.

Vera smiled flirtatiously. “Of course they sell them. What else would old biddies like me nibble with their morning cuppa?”

It was remarkable that pretty Vera still had confidence enough to refer to herself as an old biddy. He stared at her slender aristocratic nose and felt tiny stirrings. Officially he pretended to be “past all that” but secretly he was glad it could still happen. Here too, in the most discouraging of environments, young people pushing past, older, fatter people supporting themselves with their trolleys.

It seemed pretty Vera wasn’t vague about everything. “Don’t you ever have a bickie with your tea?” Her voice carried a hint of longing; her husband had died horribly of bowel cancer a decade ago.

“I’m a coffee man,” he said and immediately regretted his bluntness.

“Ah,” she said with commendable grace. “Too expensive for me.”

Feeling crass, even ugly, he wanted to amend what he’d said. To say she looked well perhaps even pretty. But he lacked the vocabulary and the necessary phrases, especially the lightness of tone. His goodbye was clumsy and fell away into silence.

At the check-out he inserted his credit-card upside down into the slot, a frequent blunder. The youth operating the till opened his mouth to tell him, then, instead, reached across, took out the card, and re-inserted it. At that moment he felt just as lonely as pretty Vera.

Outside, at the far end of the car park, he turned to look back at the supermarket. Much too large for a hacienda. But then these days, El Gordo whose peons had no doubt made him rich by rustling horses would no longer be Mexican, would live in an armed fortress in the jungles of Colombia and would carry a Glock rather than a Colt 45. Horses would have been a logistical challenge, drugs were mere industry.

Aging, ancient. Changing but only retrogressively. A host of disinclinations. His arm ached at a carrier bag heavier than he would have liked. His soul ached with embarrassment and futility at his inability to be nicer to Vera.

Thursday 29 October 2015

You knew him well, Horatio

Let's see, in roughly chronological order:

Laurence Olivier, Christopher Plummer (radio), John Gielgud (radio), a clever sixth-former at my old school, Derek Jacobi, Kenneth Branagh, Ethan Hawke, Mel Gibson (I can't be sure), Maxine Peake and, last Saturday, Benedict Cumberbatch. There may be others because I've always grabbed the chance and now regret refusing, laughingly, to book a well-regarded version in Russian at the British Film Institute. I'd see it now in a flash if I had the opportunity; perhaps there's a DVD,

Hamlet, of course, for what else could withstand so much repetition? Only music, and both Cosi and Figaro must be creeping up to parity with the crazy Dane.

Poncy, you say. Showing off. Well then, what's new? You've always known I'm a ponce and a show-off. TD has lost readers because of it.

The best Hamlet? The radio versions, both four hours, followed by Kenneth Branagh, also full. Train schedules and baby-sitters mean we rarely see the full play. And that’s a shame. To qualify for "the best" Hamlet must, first and foremost, be complete. It wasn't written to be cut. Hamlet himself explains:

The play's the thing.

I don’t know it word for word nor can I resolve its contradictions. I often dwell on what I haven't seen. Cumberbatch passes through a Polish army camp (referring to the soldiers as Polacks) and I wondered whether I'd previously seen that.

Polonius is often the litmus paper. Sometimes he’s dismissed as a fussy bumbler but it’s only familiarity that makes us slide over:

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

It’s not even wholly true. But Hamlet’s a play not an encyclopedia and the lines stick.

Saturday 24 October 2015

Winter magic

As autumn slides into winter music takes a tighter hold. Two concerts in Birmingham to which we travel by smallish bus, still in daylight, through Herefordshire's theatrically beautiful countryside. Yes, we miss the fizz of being close to London but there's peace here and an expectation we'll live longer. Already have.

Rachmaninov's third piano concerto (well liked by VR, more austere than the famous second) and how difficult it must be to play; for a time Old Man Sergei was the only chap who could. Plus Nielsen's fourth symphony, the slightly risibly named Inextinguishable, long, noisy, a huge orchestra, but it finally hung together for me (the result of hearing it in a hall instead of on CD).

More recently, Mozart's most satisfying piano concerto, played with casual skill as if it was the fifth rather than the twenty-fifth. Followed by Brahms' German Requiem, with the CBSO choir in thunderous good form, even if we were distracted by a kerfuffle involving one of the sopranos.

Last night sad apprehension as BBC4 devoted an hour-and-a-half to an examination of the five Beethoven piano concertos by the Norwegian pianist, Leif Ove Andsnes. Sad because BBC4, clearly a TV channel for elitists, will be a likely casualty following endless ideological sniping by the present Tory government and Rupert Murdoch's commercial desire to see the BBC, in its entirety, disappear.

Glorious anyway in that the first and second concertos, sometimes downgraded when compared with the later, giant trio, are not only wonderful (we knew that) but for virtuosos.

Non-musical note. One of my verses is to be published in a collection, of which more later. This week the collection's contributors received a collective email starting: “Dear Poets”. Mum, Mum, I’ve made it! At eighty!

Sunday 18 October 2015

SAD sufferers of the world arise!

 And here's another lousy thing about getting old - you're more vulnerable to SAD (seasonally affected disorder). A medically identified condition whereby one tends to be depressed by winter. Augmented in my case by rising at 06.25 into a dark world.

Last night I had two rotten dreams: an acquaintance of mine was taking ages to kill a chicken and I was somehow involved in the commercial collapse of the last magazine I edited (it did actually happen but long after I left). I lay in the dark embattled and morose and, as you see, am presently taking therapy.

Here are two spoonfuls of SAD Specific.

(1) Hancock's Half Hour was a popular BBC radio programme in the fifties and sixties. Two of the characters were Sid (Quick-witted Cockney chancer) and Bill (Pathologically stupid).

Bill: Whatcha doing Sid?

Sid: Whatcha think I'm doing? I gotta book in front of my face. I'm reading.

Bill: Oh. (Long pause). Sid, what's it like... reading?

Sid: It's... all right, I suppose. Nothing to write home about.

(2) Tangled up with a novel-writing problem I clicked rather hopelessly on Joe Hyam's blog, Now's The Time, abruptly cut short on March 9 2014 a day or two before Joe died.

Tristan had left a comment: "Am going for a drink (at the pub) in Roupell Street on Saturday 3rd October... 2015."

Joe and I've drunk - and got drunk - many times at that pub. Left a sentimental response; felt slightly better.

Monday 12 October 2015

Where I hang my hat

IN HEREFORDSHIRE, my present county, people are thin on the ground – 85 to every square kilometre. Even thinner in rural parts outside the city of Hereford which accommodates a third of the total. You want crowded? Try Surrey where I used to live: 683/sq km. Or the London suburb of Islington: 14,000/sq km.

This under-population is both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s still possible to “go for a drive” on uncrowded roads, on the other hand there isn’t really enough council tax income to administer quite a large area. Much of Herefordshire’s character has disappeared or is under threat.

I wonder how much longer Lock, Stock & Barrel will survive. It specialises in brass bits and pieces and it’s difficult to pass down its jam-packed aisles. The owner’s attitude is, shall we say, idiosyncratic; perhaps rude. He doesn’t clean his windows and his crowded displays are comical. A rubber tap nozzle exposed to the sun for several years has perished. But at least LS&B is not McDonalds or JD Sports.

NEW INVENTION is in Shropshire, north of Herefordshire, and consists of four houses on a cross-roads. Why the name? A farrier is thought to have attached horse-shoes backwards way round to confuse people. Or possibly the horses.

AS AN anniversary present I bought VR a silk pillow stuffed with silk gubbins. It cost a fortune and replaces an earlier silk pillow she much favoured. I think the pic conveys her enthusiasm.

ALL PIX courtesy of Sir Hugh, my younger brother, who lives in Arnside a swanky townlet south of the Lake District. He’s available for commissions.

Friday 9 October 2015

Intimations of the NHS

Eighty And Beyond

Just take your time and draw breath down those moist
Pink freeways, access to that chemistry,
That Canaan in your lungs, where air not wine
Becomes the life-sustaining stimulant.

Yes, do it now, experience again
That well-won ease, that swelling benefit,
That key to zestful continuity
Which conjugates the living present tense.

Once in my health, those lost uncaring days,
I woke in bed, mad with an urge to stand,
For lying rhymes with dying and I’d not
Book passage in a horizontal plane.

Air was in short supply. No, that’s not true,
I was denied its superfluity.
It seemed my inner pipes were shrinking down,
To pinholes through my physiology.

And in this state I found that more meant less,
When I breathed hard, less went to where it ought,
And harder still brought nothing in return
Except the prospect of oblivion.

Panic and patience, rarely neighbourly,
Were forced to get along. And I was forced
To take my air in meanly measured sips
Despite my need for more encouragement.

Sips became gulps of freely flowing air:
Relief, but clouded with predictive gloom.
Was this the open door through which I’d pass,
Fighting the closures in a losing war?

Yet gloom can be a spur, I shrugged and sniffed.
It is the door; I can’t be different.
All those who pass have simply qualified,
And death is breath that never made the tide.

Tuesday 6 October 2015

Drummed out of Wisley

Adam’s Despair
Short story: 1863 words

IT WAS that time of year. Neighbours left plants, weedy in pots, on his doorstep. Kindly meant, of course, but plants needed planting; they could not simply disappear as did their bags of tomatoes and courgettes (priapic singletons), some eaten, some dropped discreetly into the dustbin. Meanwhile there was cricket on telly.

More burdensome, the plants were gifts from wives rather than husbands since wives tended towards horticultural management: planning the flowering sequence, rearranging the terracotta pots and distributing the surplus. The doorstep donations acting as prelude to legitimate if interrogatory chat.

“The euphorbia was a wee bit forward,” said Tessa. “I realised you’d need to dig deeper and that can be hard work on this estate. All that builder’s rubble just below the surface.”

“I’ve found a narrower spade answers,” Frank said, proud he’d chosen the spade and could talk the talk, depressed at having to appear enthusiastic.

“Oooh, stainless steel! That must have been pricey. I hope it wasn’t from Outlands. They’re sky high.”

It was from Outlands but the right response was to hand: “It was on offer.”


The euphorbia was now embedded and conversation was dying. “You did remember the two inches of potting compost, Frank?”

“I did.”

Tessa stood on one foot and then the other. “No other news... I suppose?”

“I’m not expecting any really. Under the circumstances.”

Under the circumstances. Because the dinette was visible through the side window he laid out teapot and milk jug on the table then stood back and poured Scotch into an opaque Melamine tumbler. The test match had paused for lunch; he slumped on the couch and picked up a 600-page tome, The Role of the Imams. Not his fodder but when life became fictional non-fiction was a comfort.

NOW he could rise as early as he liked. Even shower. Drink two strong cups of instant coffee without becoming an obstacle in the kitchen.

On the driveway condensation masked the car windows turning the sporty V6 into a conveyance for dead bodies. Normally he borrowed humdrum models to show solidarity with the majority of customers but these days routine didn’t appeal; the V6 had been a leap in the dark but it roared uninhibitedly, probably disturbing the neighbours. He’d swap it for the standard 1.6 litre some time this week.

It was still early in the showroom and browsers didn’t start to trickle in until ten. Debbie stared out of the picture window her hands linked behind her, above her nicely shaped bum. Frank beckoned her into his office.

“What’s one week taught you?” he asked.

“Most customers are tentative.”

A rare word at this dealership.  But then Debbie was fresh out of uni and had been taken on experimentally, the first ever woman saleswoman at Clancy’s.

“How do you handle that?”


Frank changed tack. Posed questions about fuel economy, leasing and extended warranties to test her more severely. But she was fluent in everything.

“Any suggestions?” he asked.

“The lobelias are starting to wither. Or someone’s not watering them.”

Until then he’d been relaxed, roving her expertly made-up face, wondering idly if a woman as attractive as this (albeit older) would ever figure in his life. But lobelias caught him at the back of his throat. Drove the puff out of him.

“You know about lobelias, then?” Speaking so suggestively that Debbie stared, confused.

“The leaves go brown; it’s a sign they’re drying up. Common sense.”

“You’re not... addicted to lobelias?”


“Some women are.”

“And at Clancy’s that’s bad karma?”

Abruptly Frank switched his attention back to the real world: his office, the Salesman of the Year certificates, Glass’s Guide, pendant ball bearings to calm his troubles; with Debbie’s troubled face on the far side of his desk. He coughed, “My mind was wandering. I’ve always been weird about flowers.” Debbie’s face slackened a little. “They’ve never been my thing; cars have left me narrow-minded.” Now she smiled faintly.

The incident haunted him throughout the day. Back home he filled the Melamine tumbler with Scotch and sat down on a patio chair, still in his working suit, sipping regularly and staring at the garden.  Ticking off the jobs, knowing they would be followed by other jobs, then others, a cycle that never ended. That he had inherited.

The tumbler was still half full when he set it aside on the patio table, went indoors and emerged in paint-stained overalls and Berghaus Explorers, bought for a Brecon Beacons walking holiday that never moved out of a Builth Wells pub.  As he cut back the elder bush every third snip accidentally engaged the lock on his secateurs, forcing him to thumb it back so the blades would re-open. A defect that had irritated him for four years; but he’d examined other secateurs and found they were not only expensive but all had a similar blade-lock. Later the severed elder branches proved to be too long for the garden waste bag and had to be cut in two. More thumbing.

But now he could resume the patio chair and finish the Scotch, trying not to sip too quickly.

Falling asleep that evening, two more large Scotches to the bad, he remembered he’d run out of plastic blades for the hover mower.

The following morning Debbie beckoned him out of the showroom and on to the forecourt. “Sorry about the le Carré stuff,” she said, “but your ex waylaid me outside my flat. Accused me of having an affair with you.”

Frank sighed, felt his shoulders sag. “I suppose it’s a sort of compliment. I’m Speedy Gonzales and you’ve been here only seven working days. I’m sorry, truly sorry. But she is – as you pointed out – my ex and I’m not sure I’m still responsible.”

“I was quite flattered, I always fancied being thought louche. And she’s a real looker.”

“Oh, she’s that all right. Were there any other oddities?”

“Veiled references to a dibber.  I didn’t understand.” Debbie said, frowning.

“Jesus Christ!”

“So what’s a dibber?”

“God, I must seem like an old idiot. Would you do me a favour, Debbie? Would you look it up on Google? I’m too embarrassed to explain.”

Max, the dealership proprietor, a satyr renowned over three counties, came in and asked for the keys of the V6. “I’m taking the new girl – Hattie, is it? – to lunch. Time she got used to our little ways here at Clancy’s.”

Frank handed over the keys. “The car’s a bit noisy.”

“So am I,” said Max wolfishly.

Escorted out of the showroom by Max, Debbie whispered, broke away and hurried over to Frank’s office. “I looked up dibber; I guess it explains your weirdness with flowers. But you mustn’t worry, Frank, I’m not offended. I’m a big girl now and I went to Leicester not Oxbridge.”

Frank nodded, spoke awkwardly. “You’re having lunch with Max. I should warn you...”

“That he’s an old goat?” Debbie laughed. “I know that. Don’t forget he interviewed me for this so-called job. I’ll keep my legs crossed.”

A so-called job; Frank checked an invoice, ticked the box labelled Sales Manager, picked up another invoice.

With Max away Frank held the fort during lunchtime. An eighteen-year-old in jeans slouched in, shuffled round the shimmering cars on display and asked Frank which model was claimed to be the tart-trap. Frank grinned complicitly as he imagined a teenager might grin: “Not the word I’d use on the premises, sir, but you probably have the V6 in mind.”

“None o’ these, I’d say.”

“Our only V6 is out for the moment.

“Road tested or tart tested?”

How hard it was to hold back from standing on the young oaf’s foot. Gave him a brochure instead.

The tart-trap arrived late afternoon and Max went straight upstairs without comment to the executive suite. Debbie resumed her sales patrol, but out on the forecourt. As if they were both observing a sort of etiquette, Frank thought. From now on he would limit conversations with Debbie; that way he’d stop himself day-dreaming. And in any case she didn’t need his help.

SUNDAY was easily the worst day of the week. For years he’d spent the morning with The Sunday Times, toast and marmalade, and cups of coffee. Now his pyjamas came off and on went the paint-spattered overalls. The Explorers were waiting for him in the back porch, brushed clean of mud.

Rain had flowed under one of the patio paving slabs and had washed away part of the bed of sand. The discrepancy in the paved surface was hardly noticeable but he couldn’t afford to let it be. The slab weighed twelve kilos and tore at his finger nails as he lifted it up and replaced it, over and over, adding more sand then taking sand away, trying to get it level. As the pain in his abraded finger-tips increased he put on garden gloves but they made his hands clumsier.

Inevitably she arrived just as he finished and there was nothing to see. He attempted to explain but she shrugged. “Men can always find some fool work to keep them away from what matters. Never mind this nonsense, the acer out front is clearly pot-bound. You face a decision: a larger pot or replanting in the bed. And I’d say you’ve only got two weeks left.”

She began to tour the back garden; he, as acolyte, two steps behind. Suddenly she turned, her lovely face furious. “What’s this wretched euphorbia doing here? You know how I hate them. As usual you haven’t thought it through. As they get older they become orange. How will that sit among the cosmos stems?”

Knowing he was on a hiding to nothing he explained – haltingly – about neighbourly gifts. Her voice rose, “Simply chuck it on the compost.”

“But I live here. With these people.”

Now her voice fell to low menace. “You’ve also got obligations.”

There was more of this as they inspected the front garden, made worse by the presence of a large BMW parked two houses away, his replacement lolling at the wheel reading a newspaper. Probably The Sunday Times.

Finally she was into her final phase, more in sorrow than in anger. “Look Frank do you want the garden to go to rack and ruin? It was you who took it on.”

He nodded, he’d heard this many times.

“All right, I left you,” she said. “That’s agreed. I was prepared to disappear, right out of your life. It was you who suggested this arrangement, that I come by and offer advice.” She smiled as only she could smile. “That tickled my fancy. I am something of a garden enthusiast.”

More like an obsessional.

“But if you’re not prepared to put in the work...”

Ah, that elegant frown, those full lips. “I’ll do better, Phil.”

“Well, then.”

Frank hesitated. “But you were a bit rough on Debbie. And none of it true.”

“For your own sake, Frank. I passed by the showroom and knew she’d be a distraction. Taking you from all this.”

This was Phil at her worst, the mistress of false concern. But as he buried himself – imaginatively – in her deep copper hair, looked into those piercing blue eyes, he realised... what? How ordinary Debbie looked. And a saleswoman.